Motoring: It goes racing, it goes shopping, it goes rusty: When conditions in Knightsbridge get treacherous, you may feel safer in a used Range Rover, but rust and poor build quality may betray period examples, says James Ruppert

OTHER four-wheel-drive vehicles may be faster, cheaper, or better built, but none has the combination of superb off-road ability, timeless design and prestige that marks a Range Rover. The green welly set will accept no other 4x4. But you don't need to be rich to join the Range Rover owners' club. To the uninitiated, the only big difference between the 1981 and 1991 models is the pounds 25,000 variation in price.

First-generation, three-door Range Rovers from 1970 were pretty basic affairs, with cheap vinyl seats, rubber floor mats - and often no power steering: this wasn't fitted as standard until 1973. Although specifications gradually improved throughout the Seventies, there were few major changes. Surviving vehicles from this period - and there are plenty - can suffer a variety of ailments.

In 1981 there were improvements including an uprated interior and more powerful V8 engine. More significant was the long overdue addition of the four-door to the range. Also, the limited edition 'In Vogue' marked the beginning of the Range Rover's gentrification. It had cloth seats, extensive carpeting, walnut door cappings and an engine tuned for economy. Optional automatic transmission was offered in 1982.

In 1984, another face-lift did away with the front quarter-lights and completely revised the interior. The luxury 'Vogue' now lost its 'In' and became a permanent production model with a fuel-injected engine, identified as the EFi. It was joined in 1988 by an SE version with an even higher specification, including leather upholstery and air conditioning. The engine size was increased across the range in 1989 when the 3.9 EFi unit was introduced. Meanwhile, in 1986, it had at last become possible to buy a turbo diesel model, while the two-door had passed away silently the same year.

The choice can seem bewildering, considering all the minor modifications over the years; and the aficionados don't help, talking confusingly about Phases I to V. I set out to do some digging. Partly for fun, but mostly in the interests of research, I tracked down one of the cheapest Range Rovers, as a worst-case scenario. In leafy Guildford I found a 1973 example, priced at pounds 675, clinging to automotive life with a two-month MOT. Recent mud-plugging had camouflaged the worst of the rust, sun-dried soil caking the wheels and lower body; but the rot still showed through. The rear tailgate often rots away first, and this Range Rover was not unusual in this respect. The rust trail continued around the sills, doors and underneath the carpets - leaning in through the tailgate I could look down through the floor to my wellies. The interior trim, always a weak point on old Range Rovers, was in an advanced state of disintegration. Only some cheap covers were holding the seats together. No real surprises there.

I persuaded the seller to let me take it around the block, and listened to the rattle of a camshaft - a sure sign of expensive trouble ahead. Another reason for alarm would be complaints from the busy transmission system. Whines, clanks and metallic grinds mean you should think again.

At pounds 675, a Range Rover is too cheap: it should be scrap at that price. Good two doors start at pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000, depending on specification. Check for rust and make sure there is power steering.

I progressed from the awful to the overdeveloped. At the Blue Garage in Reading I was surprised to find two examples of the Overfinch conversion. For customers who want Ferrari-like performance combined with the Range Rover's off-road capability and accommodation, the company shoehorned huge Chevrolet engines under the bonnet and uprated the braking and suspension systems. I was rather excited at the prospect of meeting these beasts, but the salesman was underwhelming. He told me that the 1986 example with a 6.2-litre engine had previously been owned by Sir Robert McAlpine, had 72,000 miles on the clock and was priced at pounds 12,495. Apart from that, all he could tell me was that the Overfinch Range Rovers 'go like stink'. Call me old-fashioned, but I expect a specialist in a marque to bone up on the details.

At Walton Motors, Mr Loveridge, a true Rangeologist, was in his element unravelling the complex metamorphosis of a 1984 vehicle into a 1992 clone. The previous owner had simply bolted on a later grille, spoiler, huge bull bars, added a fuel flap cover (Phase IV cars onward) and painted it all Beluga black. He had not stopped there either, because inside were tan leather Phase IV Vogue SE seats. The rest of the trim had a 'lived in' look but - as we have seen - that is normal. For pounds 8,950 it came with a new gearbox, fresh service and a personalised number plate (with no giveaway prefix) to complete the deception.

One of the worst reasons for buying a Range Rover is fuel economy: 15-18mpg is the norm. But that can instantly be boosted up to 28mpg if you can locate a rare, diesel-powered model. I found one at Hexagon, an official Land Rover franchise holder in London's Kentish Town. The sales manager, Graham Kimberley, showed me a pristine 1990 Vogue diesel with just 28,500 miles on the clock. Apart from the usual Vogue appointments there was a side step to make entrances and exits easier, metal lamp guards and modified suspension. Inside it was 'as new' and you could hardly hear the traditional clatter of the diesel. With a full Land Rover warranty the price was pounds 18,995.

If all you need is an estate, then you'll buy a Volvo. But if you are keen to make a real statement, are not fussed by mpg figures, want the most commanding driving position on the road and plenty of traction off it, and need somewhere to put the wellies, then you'll be at home in the Range Rover.